Pure deid metal - why is pure science so hard to explain?

In my interviews with Scottish scientists they all agree, it's hard to engage the public and get them excited about pure science. So I wanted to find out more and took a (virtual) trip from Bellshill to Princeton.

The Nobel Prize winner from Bellshill

It was a brisk day in March when I found myself bracing against the chill wind and sitting looking down the tracks of Bellshill Railway station in the central belt of Scotland just outside Glasgow.  

"When you go....will you send back...a letter from America?  Take a look at the railtracks from Miami to Canada?"

Or maybe the railtracks from Glasgow to Bellshill?

Bellshill railway station a train is pulling in

As it happened that morning I had received an email from America.  From the 2021 winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  Professor Sir David MacMillan was fresh out of London having being knighted for developing asymmetric organocatalysis for which he was jointly awarded a prize with German scientist Benjamin List.

I'm not about to explain asymmetric organocatalysis or even profess to know what it is.  But in essence this discovery which he started work on as an early-career researcher will bring new ways to develop pharmaceuticals and materials sustainably because it reduces the use of metals and allows many reactions to proceed in fewer steps and with less waste.

The story of this discovery is intriguing from a public engagement perspective.  This discovery which saw a Scottish scientist awarded the Nobel Prize is, according to Istvan Hargittai, a rare example of a prize awarded for a discovery relating to a pure chemical process, as opposed to previous awards which are more applied in nature (e.g. biochemistry).  It's not always easy to get non-scientific publics excited about science, and more so if it is pure, rather than applied science.  

One of the scientists I recently interviewed expressed consternation that he found it difficult to see where he can meaningfully link his work in pure mathematics to research, teaching and public engagement.  So how do you engage with the public if your field of study is so abstract even your colleague in the lab next door fails to grasp it?  It's not easy...

Nobel Laureates are known the world over

The Nobel Prize has facilitated the popularisation of science since it was instituted in 1901.  Great names have passed before Professor MacMillan, including Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford.  For Professor MacMillan, an avid football fan, where better to engage with the public than through the medium of football?  According to Chemistry World, he announced on BBC Radio Scotland's Saturday football programme "Off the Ball" that he would be donating the entire sum of his prize winning £405,000 to support young people in STEM.

David MacMillan wearing a scottish national football top

Professor MacMillan wearing the Scottish National Football team colours

I read that Professor MacMillan had placed a bet of $1,000 that he had not won the Nobel Prize and a sense of his West of Scotland self-deprecating humour shone through which chimed with the findings from my PhD interviews with chemists in Scotland.  For them when there's a sense of loss, a sense of pathos, this is often obscured by humour.  One of the scientists I spoke to said "Gallows humour" gets him through the hard times when he's teaching.

The Green Economy, can this be a "just" transition

Returning to the Proclaimer's song, it charts the socio-cultural consequences of the sudden and unjust de-industrialisation of Scotland.  Closures of mines, steelworks, shipyards and car plants in the 70s and 80s changed the social and economic fabric of the area.  Professor MacMillan's Father himself left school at 14 to work in steel.  Now most of these industries are gone and the River Clyde harbours remnants of the environmental injustices of historical pollution from chemical works, factories and industrial processes.

Scotland's former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, declared a climate emergency in 2019.  Being one of the first nations in the British Isles to do so, Scotland committed to net zero.  This will undoubtedly lead to change, but the hope is that the transition to the green economy will be a "just" transition and not have such longitudinal consequences as deindustrialisation in the central belt of Scotland.

Part of my PhD research looks at the ways that autoethnography can be used to share and interpret meaning with research interview participants.  I re-wrote the original song Letter from America to reflect on the brain drain of scientists from Scotland to the USA.  I'll perform the full version alongside Luke Daniels on the 13th April at the PCST23 conference in Rotterdam.  

Before I finalised it I sent a copy to Professor MacMillan, or "Our Davie" as I rather cheekily referred to him in the song.  I wanted to share its meaning and check that he was content with my representation of him.  I didn't hear back for a wee while, but then I did.  On the day I stood waiting for a train at Bellhill station and he said it had "Made his day".  It's not every day you get a Letter from America like that.

Prof MacMillan wearing a white lab coat with two students in school uniform

Professor MacMillan on a visit to his former school in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, Scotland


The Scottish Dream - 2023

When you go, will you send back

a letter from America?

Take a look at the research

from Ramsay to Anderson….


Away from the lab bench

The other day

Spent my time, looking for

funding streams to flow this way.


But is it pointless?  Or is it fruitless?

When I’ve barely time, for making slime

And outreach any way……..


When you go, will you send back

a letter from America?

Take a look at the research

from Ramsay to Anderson….


Across the ocean, in the ivy league

It’s quite a stun, Our Davie’s won

The Nobel prize I’m all intrigued.


We should have held you, we should have told you
But you know our sense of timing we always wait too long…..


Shawfield no more….

Steventon no more….

Polmadie no more…….

Bellshill no more….



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Lucy Beattie

Lucy Beattie

Hi I'm Lucy, a PhD Candidate with the UWS Academy. I'm looking at the role of public engagement in connecting teaching and research in Higher Education

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